In writing his biography of an artist obsessed with seaminess and human mess, Simon Schama came to reassess his view of history. Harriet Swain reports
In Rembrandt's painting, The Supper at Emmaus, the silhouette of Christ leans backwards in a patch of dazzling light, watched by an astonished disciple. The disciple's eyes are popping white from the sockets, his pupils two pinholes.
"The painting is sensational. Literally," writes Simon Schama, professor in art history and history at Columbia University and author of a biography of Rembrandt, published this month.
The painting shows the point at which the disciples recognised Christ after his death and resurrection: "And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight."
It is, says Schama, about seeing and not seeing, about light from darkness. The rough, apparently incomplete quality of the painting also invites the viewer "to work with the picture, to become engaged in it far more emphatically than any ostensibly finished product. It's as if Rembrandt were already refusing the slick brush in favour of the urgent eye".
So the title of Schama's book, Rembrandt's Eyes, is no afterthought. Eyes are everywhere, from the spiritual inner eye, to the eye of the beholder, to the eyes of subjects staring out from Rembrandt's paintings and engaging those of the viewer, to the blocked out or obscured eyes of Rembrandt's early self-portraits, to his paintings of blind Tobit and Samson.
As it happens, Schama is having a spot of trouble with his eyes too. Full of apologies, he speeds off to Harley Street, re-emerging for our restaurant meeting an hour later, after treatment for a recurring infection, and engages in a vivid discussion about how to have his tuna steak - medium, he decides, but laced with the merest blush of pink.
At certain points in his career, Rembrandt would have been no stranger to similar culinary dilemmas. For a while, his skills were sought after by Amsterdam traders and patricians alike. He bought an expensive merchant house in the town and was feted as one of the finest artists of his generation.
At the end of his life, he plunged into bankruptcy and a poverty so deep that he was forced to sell his wife's grave. But whatever the state of his own finances he was always fascinated with the seamier sides of life and it is this that singled him out for Schama. "I did see him as someone who provided an unflinching Shakespearean reflection of the foibles of humanity, an absorption with human mess," he says.
Rembrandt's connection with Shakespeare ran deeper in that his work was preoccupied with play-acting and dressing up. In Rembrandt's Eyes, Schama writes: "No painter would ever understand the theatricality of social life as well as Rembrandt. He saw the actors in men and the men in the actors."
It was a quality shared by Rubens, 30 years Rembrandt's senior and one of the foremost Dutch painters of the period. Schama argues that Rembrandt became obsessed with Rubens for ten years, struggling to emulate his religious paintings and borrowing from his compositions.
There is a feeling that Schama became a little obsessed with the connection himself. He devotes a large chunk of the book to Rubens, going into his personal background in some detail and, at one stage, contemplated calling it Rembrandt and Rubens. "There probably is a bit too much on Rubens," he confesses, "but I don't regret doing it."
There is perhaps a bit too much of the book altogether. It runs to more than 700 pages, despite having been heavily cut. Much of this length is because of Schama's inability to resist sensuous descriptions of the historical and environmental background to Rembrandt's world -the boatyards and brothels of Dutch towns, the religious conflicts, which dominated 17th-century life.
Schama's work has always assumed that context is the key connection between people and ideas. The culmination of this was his last book, Landscape and Memory, which tied individual human experience closely together with its cultural and environmental background. But he says studying Rembrandt has helped change this. "I began to have second thoughts about the relationship between context and originality," he says. He came, he says, to believe that history can explain only so much.
"All my training made me sceptical about having fainting fits in front of genius. So it's not that. It's a sense of tipping one's hat really; just what comes from intense imagination - the marks of the paint themselves."
So the book is not only biography, art history and history, but also attempts to look in some depth at how Rembrandt went about putting paint on canvas, including studies of his brushwork and use of colour. He is, Schama writes, "remembered as the greatest master of the broad brush before the advent of modernism". Furthermore, some of his work actually took the art of painting as its subject. For Rembrandt was, Schama writes, as much "philosopher as poet".
Unlike Rubens, Rembrandt appears to have been no great reader. Inventories of his possessions show a treasure trove of Roman busts, bird plumes, turbans and shells but, although his paintings show a fascination with the material of books, he owned surprisingly few. Yet Schama argues that one of the challenges of writing about Rembrandt was that he was a profound thinker, someone able to convey "the energy of liberated barbarism".
This, Schama admits, is perhaps applying to him terms more applicable to later artists. But he rails against those who reject the suggestion that Rembrandt may be someone who anticipated modernism.
Asked for his favourite Rembrandt painting, Schama does not hesitate: the three-quarter-length portrait of Rembrandt's friend Jan Six, painted in 1654, "without question the greatest of his portraits and arguably the most psychologically penetrating of all 17th-century portraits". He admires it, he writes, as "a virtual encyclopedia of painting", employing techniques from loose strokes, to nearly dry brushes to detail and impressionist touches. But he admires it most because he pulls together all these skills into a single image "so that Jan Six does indeed stand before us much as we would wish to imagine ourselves, all the contradictions of our character - vanity and modesty, outward show and inward reflectiveness, energy and calm - miraculously fitted together".
Rembrandt's Eyes (Penguin Press) is published October 28, Pounds 30.00.